Five Takeaways from West Ham’s South Coast Heartbreak!

From despair to honour to ultimate heartbreak as the Hammers go down on the south coast.

A Game of Incident Rather Than Quality

Prior to kick-off the commentator, with customary TV hyperbole, was promising a mouth-watering spectacle from the St Mary’s Stadium.  What we got was a match full of incident but short of real quality.  As happens far too frequently in Premier League football the pattern of the game was defined more by a red card and other refereeing decisions than by the skill and cunning of the highly paid participants.  Arguably it made for an entertaining contest, at least for the victors, or even the neutral had there been any watching.  The merrymaking started in the pre-match kickabout when Winston Reid, concerned by the shortening Hammer’s injury list and weighed down by his new contract extension, had to be stretchered off the pitch to leave a formidable Jose Fonte – Angelo Ogbonna pairing at the heart of the Hammer’s defence.  The consequence of Reid’s injury was that West Ham were left a man short on the bench; although I’m not sure whether this was due to league rules or the club saving on the cost of an extra train ticket to put towards the transfer kitty.

The Consistently Inconsistent Referee

Lee Mason is only an occasional Premier League referee who does most of his work in the lower leagues.  On the evidence of yesterday it is not difficult to understand why.  It would be wrong to argue the case that any of the decisions yesterday that directly affected West Ham’s cause were wrong but Mason’s performance was either astoundingly inconsistent or incompetent.  Marko Arnautovic was foolish in the extreme to elbow the defender in the referee’s eye-line and deserved to go but by then Mason had been lenient with Tadic’s assault on Hernandez, missed completely an elbow on Arnautovic himself (to which he was no doubt reacting) as well as a trademark reckless challenge on the edge of the area by Mark Noble.  The first penalty was as stonewall as it was unnecessary to concede, while the second, heart-breaking as it was, is equally impossible to contest.  The accused, Pablo Zabaleta, was mightily aggrieved to have been penalised and whereas it was not the type of decision that would usually go against Manchester City he has to realise he is at West Ham now.  In mitigation challenges such as Zabaletas often go unpunished just as Mason chose (or missed) to penalise what I felt was an obvious handball by a Southampton defender earlier in the second half.

Ten Men or Less (or should that be Fewer?)

There is never a good time to go down to ten men but after just half an hour when you are already a goal down is up there with the worst.  Throw in the fact that several of the players who started contributed little or nothing then it left West Ham with a mountain to climb.  Jose Fonte in particular had a hand in all three goals conceded and must now go straight to the top of the assist charts.  Whoever thought that buying the ageing plane spotter was a good idea needs a slap and why he is seen as better option in the centre of defence than either Reece Burke or Declan Rice is a puzzle.  Everyone has come across a colleague at work who constantly gives the impression of looking busy in effectachieves nothing at all; this is Andre Ayew.  Always manages to photobomb TV close-ups dripping with sweat, hands on head, looking disappointed, cursing his luck or pleading with the referee yet his actual contribution is no more than a walk-on part.  I have a suspicion that unbeknown to us there was a surreptitious body exchange with his brother, Jordan, during his time out injured last year.  Finally, thanks Mark, but your time is now well and truly up.  The treacle runner once again saw the game pass him by and why he was preferred to Pedro Obiang is another to add to the list of Slaven Bilic mysteries.

There Were Some Positives

In the circumstances it was a gutsy performance to come back from two goals down to almost snatch a draw with ten men (or fewer).  What I feared would turn into a rampant demolition culminated with severe disappointment at the added time winner for the hosts; typical that it should be Charlie Austin, publicly maligned by our Chairman, who scored the decisive goal.  Although the closeness of the game was partly due to Southampton not having the belief to press home their advantage it was also a commendable effort on behalf of the Hammers.  In particular the return of Michail Antonio and the predatory skills of Javier Hernandez were impressive positives.  With minimal pre-season preparation, Antonio’s physical presence, commitment, effort and enterprise gave hope that the unexpected could happen and his tenacity was rewarded in setting up the first goal on the stroke of half-time (the nature of which meant, ridiculously, that no assist credit is given).  Little Pea demonstrated why his instinct will always deliver goals and he did this while also putting in tremendous effort as emergency cover for the disgraced Arnautovic.  There was also another assured performance from Rice although I still believe he would be better deployed in the centre of defence.

Better on Paper Than on Grass

The dismissal and near-heroic fight-back distracted from the continued deficiencies and inadequacies of squad and manager.  Even before the sending-off the defence was opened up at will down Southampton’s right wing and the first goal highlighted how vulnerable West Ham are against attacks at pace through the middle.  The squad on paper looks strong enough but unfortunately the teams put out on the pitch are less than the sum of their parts; through a lack of cohesion, organisation plus the aforementioned passengers.  With Manuel Lanzini and Chiekhou Kouyate still to return there should be a decent starting eleven in there somewhere if only it could be exploited, but cover is worryingly thin in some areas with only Lanzini capable of offering much in the way of subtlety and creativity.  Patting ourselves on the back for a successful transfer window is looking increasingly premature.  Hernandez looks to be a fantastic signing and cheap at half the price but my personal jury is still out as to what the others can offer.  Hart doesn’t look the keeper he once was and I doubt whether he even dominates the area as much as Adrian does?  Zabaleta has commitment and experience but does he have the legs for a long hard slog?   I am definitely sceptical on Arnautovic and he has much to prove; he never consistently wowed at Stoke and is a fair-weather player who turns up when he feels like it really what we need?  With the transfer window open for just over another week I hope that extra pace and athleticism in central midfield and defence are firmly on the radar.  Otherwise current trajectory says no better than last season and quite possibly far worse!

Matchday: Will West Ham Turn Up Today at Southampton?

More misery on the road or a kick start to the season down on the south coast?

The team that has gone six games at home without a goal plays the team that, on last week’s evidence, look like they wouldn’t be able to score in a month of Sundays.  So a goal-fest at the St Mary’s Stadium would be improbable were it not for the Hammer’s obliging nature in ending the dismal sequences of the other clubs.

Most West Ham supporters would consider the Hammers a bigger club than the Saints although this has not been in evidence over recent years.  Southampton pipped West Ham for automatic promotion in the 2011/12 Championship campaign and have finished higher in the Premier League in each of the last four seasons.  Despite finishing in a creditable eighth spot last season, the south coast club elected to change managers and now have a new boss in Argentine Mauricio Pellegrino, who has been described as a ‘breath of fresh air’ by his playing staff.

“They know they are not only following West Ham but ‘living’ West Ham. Those fans, they know how well the chairmen are doing for the club – how much they have invested – and they have taken it a long way up already.”

– Slaven Bilic on the Owners

Southampton also have new Chinese owners and they have inherited a well run club that appears to have a long term plan, a philosophy of how the game should be played ( regardless of manager) and a belief in giving a chance to their young players.  It is in stark contrast to the erratic, unfocused and unplanned direction witnessed at West Ham just now.  One report suggested kindly, after last week’s debacle, that the Hammers were a team in transition but sadly this level of uncertainty has become business as usual in the east-end.

Head to Head

West Ham can still boast supremacy in the all-time record with Southampton having won forty and lost thirty of the 105 senior meetings.  Honours are even at four apiece in the last twelve encounters, home and away, while in away games only West Ham have won two and lost six of the last twelve. In the eight meetings since Southampton moved to St Mary’s the Hammers have lost three times and won just the once, with a draw being the favoured outcome.  The sole victory was, of course, last season’s ultimately comfortable 3-1 victory earned with goals from Andy Carroll, Pedro Obiang and Mark Noble despite a typically shaky start.

Team News

West Ham welcome back Michail Antonio from a reducing injury list that now only includes three players; Manuel Lanzini, Cheikhou Kouyate and Carroll.  Without Lanzini the side continues to lack creativity but Antonio’s energy and power will be welcome, assuming that he is yet working at full throttle.

From the fall-out of last Sunday I would expect to see Aaron Cresswell re-installed at left back but whether that will be as part of a back four or in a slightly more advanced wing back role is anyone’s guess.  One of Antonio or Andre ‘What Does He Actually Do’ Ayew will likely be given attacking central midfield duties to give the impression of support to Javier Hernandez.  Obiang and Noble are probable starters with Declan Rice being introduced later on.

“We have to use our experience from Swansea and use everything we did in this game to keep learning and to use this experience for the next few games.”

– Mauricio Pellegrino

Southampton have no injury problems and can choose from a fully fit squad.  In recognition of the new Chinese influence on the south coast my takeaway is that we need to look out for Number 10, Number 16 and Number 22.

The Man in the Middle

Today’s referee is Lee Mason from Lancashire.  Mason’s only appointment last season with West Ham was in the 1-0 home win over Hull where he awarded a controversial penalty for a foul on Antonio, converted by Noble for the only goal of the game.

Predictions

The BBC’s Lawro and Sky Sport’s Paul Merson are going for 2-1 and 1-0 respectively.

I worked in Southampton at one time in my life and was a relatively frequent visitor to Saints games, although mainly in The Dell days.  Their fans have an innocent excitability about them, like schoolgirls at an international hockey game, and I predict that they will be very excited once more this afternoon with a 3-1 victory that will leave the Hammer’s firmly rooted in bottom spot.

A preview of West Ham at Southampton

After the Manchester United debacle, a trip down the M3 to visit Southampton, one of West Ham’s challengers to finish as champions of the second tier of the Premier League

I believe that the top seven places in the Premier League are already reserved for the two Manchester clubs, the two Merseyside teams, and the London trio of Tottenham, Chelsea, and Arsenal. I’d love to be proved wrong but I’d get short odds from a bookmaker on those teams to finish at the top, even though the exact order that they will finish in is not cut and dried.

Southampton are the current “champions of the second tier of teams in the Premier League” after their eighth place finish last season, although the competition for this “honour” is a close run thing. They only finished a point ahead of ourselves (11th), and only six points separated 8th from 17th. I anticipate a similar close contest this time around.

In many ways the recent fortunes of Southampton are fairly similar to our own, although they have slightly the upper hand when it comes to league positions. We were both promoted to the top tier in 2011-12; they just pipped us for the second automatic place by two points, and it was the two games that we played each other that proved to be the difference. A 0-1 reverse at St. Mary’s in October 2011 was followed by a 1-1 draw in a controversial game at Upton Park on Valentine’s Day in 2012. Their four points to our one was essentially why they went up automatically, although with the benefit of hindsight, I wouldn’t have wanted to miss that great day at Wembley in May 2012 when we beat Blackpool in the play-off final.

In the first season back in the Premier League (2012-13) we finished a creditable tenth, with five more points that Southampton who were 14th. The following year our placings were reversed with the Saints 8th, 16 points ahead of ourselves in 13th. In 2014-15 the gap was 13 points with their seventh placed finish five places in front of us (12th). We both had excellent seasons in 2015-16; we were pleased to finish in seventh place in what in many ways (although not finishing position) many consider was our best ever season in the Premier League, but once again they were slightly above us by one position (6th) and one point. And one point (and three places) was their slender advantage over us last season.

In our two most recent games we shared the spoils, with a comprehensive Southampton victory (3-0) at the London Stadium just a fortnight after we had thrown away a two goal advantage in the home game against Watford last September, the catalysts for early season discontent which saw us sitting in a relegation place at the time. But by the time we met them in the reverse fixture at their place early in February this year, our fortunes had picked up considerably, and the three goals from Carroll, Obiang and Noble in a 3-1 win pushed us up to 9th place in the table. In a season where we only managed to score three or more goals in a league game on four occasions, we were in a hot streak (by our standards) at this time, scoring three goals for the third time in just three weeks. I try to forget though, that just three days before our victory at St Mary’s, Manchester City hammered us 4-0 at the London Stadium.

Head-to-head in the last six seasons (the Championship promotion year, and the five seasons since), we are very even with four wins, four draws and four defeats, with 15 goals scored to their 14. One interesting feature of this period is that Andy Carroll has scored in three of those games, although he is not yet ready to return to action, but Mark Noble has done even better. He has scored in four of the games (five goals in total), which must make our opponents one of his favourite teams to play against.

Our injury list has only reduced slightly with the return of Michail Antonio, although Sakho appears to have remained OK after his substitute appearance last weekend. Carroll, Kouyate, and Lanzini are all apparently close to a return but not quite close enough. Based upon last week’s performance, and the principle of horses for courses, as well as the need to recognise that Hernandez needs a partner to be at his best, I would expect our manager to name the following line-up for this game:

Hart

Zabaleta, Reid, Ogbonna, Cresswell,

Antonio, Noble, Obiang, Arnautovic,

Hernandez, Sakho

My main concerns, which are not new, are the possibility of being over-run in midfield, giving the ball away cheaply too often, the lack of pace at the back, and our slow build-up play. The manager may opt for Ayew (although I don’t know why), and Rice would be unlucky not to be called up based upon his excellent cameo at Old Trafford. Fernandes remains a good young prospect, but like Masuaku, both had poor games last weekend and may find themselves on the bench. Perhaps Sakho is not yet ready for a start, and either Antonio or Arnautavic might be pushed forward to partner Hernandez, which might give us the opportunity to bolster the midfield. Hopefully, all the players will be aware of the imminent return of Carroll, Lanzini, and Kouyate, and put in performances worthy of the shirt.

I’ll predict a draw, but hope that I am wrong and we sneak a victory. Perhaps Mark Noble will add to his goal tally against Southampton? Let us hope for an improved performance, and that we are not still at the foot of the table after this round of matches.

A reflective view on our trip to Manchester United last Sunday

A look back at West Ham’s defeat at Old Trafford now that the dust has settled.

Having let the dust settle for a few days I thought I would review what happened on Sunday afternoon at Old Trafford after a little reflection, rather than all the knee-jerk reactions that I read immediately after the game. It is always amusing (in a perverse way) to read the views of West Ham fans on social media at the end of a match, especially one where we have been heavily beaten.

The two widely diverse reactions mainly consisted on one hand of those who resorted to numerous expletives about the performance of the team and various individuals, and as an alternative view, those who suggested that such opinions are way over the top, and everyone should calm down. Of course we are all entitled to our views, but it does seem to me that many of our supporters only believe that their own view is valid, and anyone who disagrees with it is wrong, or even worse, they are just f****** c***s! But to some extent, that is the way social media operates.

Some are critical of the performance and various individual players, but try to be constructive, and suggest what we need to do to improve. But they are often lambasted with comments such as “the Bilic haters are out in force” (for Bilic you can read the names of some individual players), or “you should get behind the team”, or “West Ham till I die”, or other such comments.

I was on holiday last week in one of my favourite resorts, Camp de Mar on the island of Majorca, and a couple of days before the game I watched a comedian from Liverpool. He began his act by trying to ascertain where most of the audience came from. He asked if there were any Manchester United supporters and there was quite a cheer from parts of the crowd. His next question was to ask what part of London they came from! As I sat down to watch the game in the hotel bar I picked up on quite a few London accents around me, as well as a number of individuals from other parts of the country. When the first goal went in what we already knew was confirmed, and the comedian was proved right. Manchester United do have many fans in the south.

My opinion of the game as a whole is that we were completely over-run by a team that will undoubtedly be challenging for the title this season. They are full of skilful players with power and pace, and many teams are likely to be well beaten by them this season, especially at Old Trafford. The gulf in class between the top six teams in the country (perhaps Everton hope to make it seven) and the rest is vast. Some will point to the Chelsea game and the way they were beaten by Burnley, but Chelsea were in self-destruct mode (a bit like they were the season after Mourinho last won the title), so perhaps they will not be the same force as last season. Nevertheless they still fought back against Burnley despite being outnumbered.

The chances were we were always likely to lose the game, but to stand a chance, we had to be at our best, and preferably have our best team fit and raring to go. Our opponents were able to select their team from a fully fit squad, but we went into the game (as is so often the case) with injuries to key players. Lanzini, Antonio and Kouyate (and perhaps Carroll) are all first choice players, but were all unavailable. I despair at the number of key players that always seem to be missing through injury. Perhaps if they had been without Lukaku, Pogba, Rashford and Matic the result would have been different? But with the depth of their squad perhaps not?

But from my viewpoint the sad fact is that we appeared to go into the game lacking belief that we could win, and were just there to try to hold on for a draw. But I would have hoped for more resistance. Once again though, I’m not sure I understood what our game plan was, and I’m not sure that the players were aware of it either.

When you watch sport on TV these days you are bombarded with a plethora of statistics. This has always been a feature of American sport but it has now translated to these isles. If you watch tennis they show the number of unforced errors made by each player. This statistic is not yet a feature in football, but if it was then our figures would have been alarmingly high in this game. Time and again we gave the ball away to our opponents when not really under pressure.

According to our manager the players spent three days in training in how to deal with our opponent’s set pieces. Whose idea then was it that Masuaku should be the one to mark Lukaku? And talking of free kicks, how do we manage so often to waste them in the opposition half by taking them quickly and backwards, with the ball ending up back with our keeper? And why did it take so long to realise that Hernandez is not effective a lone striker? That’s just not his game, is it? We have four experienced international central defenders at the club. Am I alone in thinking that we need more pace in this area? And do Reid and Ogbonna make an ideal combination?

The Hart knockers (Adrian fan club?) were out in force on social media after the game. I thought Hart did OK. Yes, perhaps he might have saved one of the goals, but not at least three of them as some Adrian fans were suggesting. I like Adrian; he is a decent keeper; but I cannot go overboard about his passion purely in the light of throwing his gloves on the ground to take a penalty against Everton. I thought Zabaleta did OK too. I read some criticism of his pace, but most Premier League defenders would have struggled against Rashford and (later) Martial on the day.

Both of our left backs are perhaps better going forward than defending, as is the case with many full backs these days. I do have a slight preference for Cresswell defensively though, but it’s all a matter of opinion. I am a big fan of Obiang, and the potential of Fernandes, but both seemed well off the pace on Sunday. But the cameo from Rice was excellent with statistics to back it up. The pleasing thing from my point of view was his desire for the ball, and how he looked confident and assured when he had it. I believe a run in the team would be well deserved.

Our attacking play was slow and predictable, as it was for much of last season, and many believe that part of the reason for this is our captain. He has been a great servant for the club, and hopefully will continue to be. He has never been blessed with great pace, but increasingly these days he seems to be running on sand (or in treacle!).

But as many have said; let’s not be too hasty. It was one game against a top class side. Hopefully our injury list will disappear soon and we will have a full squad to pick from. Perhaps there is more to come from this transfer window? The Carvalho saga drags on, and some reports suggest we are after other Sporting Lisbon and Benfica players. I don’t know how effective they would be in the Premier League if any of them arrive? Personally I’d love to see us spend the kind of money that is being talked about (for Carvalho) on Oxlade-Chamberlain, but doubt if it will happen (or that he would necessarily want to come!). I’d take a chance on Wilshere too if he was available at a decent price, despite his injury record. We need more creativity than relying on Lanzini.

It will be important to put in better performances against the other 12 teams who are fighting for an eighth place finish in the Premier League. The gulf between the top seven and the rest is unfortunately too wide (I believe) for us to believe we can finish any higher. I’d love to be proved wrong though.

Five Takeaways from West Ham’s thrashing by Manchester United

After all the build up a depressingly disappointing start to the new league season. What went wrong?

Overawed by Potential Champions

There is no doubt that Manchester United are one of the favourites for this season’s Premier League title.  Mourinho has assembled a side that has a pragmatism alongside power and pace that will enable them to grind out results whenever opponents go to Old Trafford to frustrate.  They won’t have many easier days than yesterday’s canter against a feeble and unadventurous West Ham side.  The gulf in class was so great it could have been Premier League versus League 1 in an early round FA Cup tie, although in those circumstances you would have expected the opposition to put up more resistance.  Slaven Bilic may well have selected the best eleven players available to him, as a result of injuries to key players, but it felt that he sent them out with no discernible game plan or belief that they could get anything out of the game.  As has so often been the case in recent seasons it is not the fact that we have lost to a much better side that exasperates and causes concern but the manner in which we have apparently accepted defeat as inevitable .

Repeating Last Season’s Mistakes

It is only one game into the season and so rash judgements should be avoided at least until the transfer window has closed and we have welcomed the respective returns of Manuel Lanzini and Michail Antonio.  However, the underlying worry is that we have simply picked up where we left off last season.  Persistent concerns from last term surrounding levels of fitness, tactics, selection, organisation and motivation continued to surface in pre-season and were apparent once again yesterday.  Better players may have been signed but that is only one part of the equation in creating a team that will perform week in, week out.  The impression given is of a disjointed side with players who are strangers to each other and any sign of cohesion and collective desire is difficult to spot.  Bilic claimed after the match that they had spent three days on the training ground working on defending set pieces and yet the best that they came up with was to have Arthur Masuaku marking Lukaku at a free kick.  Repeating last season’s mistakes gives no cause for optimism that it will be anything other than another disappointing campaign.  The only way to turn things around is by doing things differently; not doing the same things over and over again.

The Problem of Ball Retention and Unforced Errors

A recurring theme in West Ham’s play for some time is how cheaply the ball is given away.  If you game plan is to sit and back and soak up pressure then one assumes there should be some ambition once you get the ball.  If the only tactic is give it back to the opposition straight away and invite them to try again, then sooner or later something will give.  Accepting that Manchester United have better players does not mean that our players should be unable to execute the most basic of football skills; control, pass, move.  In the opening exchanges yesterday the ball was given away repeatedly even when under little pressure and it was one such unforced error by Pedro Obiang that led directly to the first of Lukaku’s goals.  Equally there is not enough movement off the ball to create space or provide options for the player in possession.  Do West Ham have a patent on the 180 degree turn?  It used to be said that West Ham played ‘on their toes’ in anticipation of pass and to occupy opposition defenders; now it is mostly a case of players remaining flat footed until the ball arrives at their feet losing momentum and allowing opponents to re-group.  Our players seem to want to play in little triangles as if it is a training ground practice drill with the result that the opposition is not stretched and attacks are slow and predictable.

Selections and Substitutions

I had expected West Ham to go into the game with three at the back and so was somewhat surprised when the team was announced.  Our full backs are generally better at going forward (and relatively suspect defensively) while the wide midfield players are not known for paying attention to defensive duties.  Having said that, I am not sure that a back three would have led to a different outcome as we are equally vulnerable to attacks at pace through the middle as we are down the flanks. I would not be too critical of Bilic about the substitutions although arguably it resulted in a heavier defeat than might have been the case.  At 2-0 down it was a gamble to bring on an additional forward but at least Diafra Sakho looked lively and the change was an attempt to give some support to Javier Hernandez, who toiled manfully but was largely isolated.

Declan Rice The Only Positive

The only real positive from the game was the thirty minute contribution by Declan Rice.  I had questioned using him in midfield previously but was very impressed with both his maturity and how comfortable he looked on the ball and in the Premier League.  If you are good enough you are old enough.  Of the new signings, Pablo Zabaleta did OK and at least showed commitment, Hernandez ran willingly and demonstrated good touch, Marko Arnautovic blew hot and cold and Joe Hart should maybe have done better for the last goal.  I wonder if they are starting to wonder what they have let themselves in for at West Ham.  Of the others Edmilson Fernandes and Masuaku were particularly disappointing, Obiang had a bad day, Mark Noble tried hard but is well off the pace and I am still left scratching me head at what Andre Ayew is meant to contribute.  I will leave the summing up of our performance to whoscored.com:

Strengths                  Team has no significant strengths

Styles                         Team showed no specific style of play

Triskaidekaphobia in August? Not West Ham!

Unlucky for some but not for the Hammers.

Triskaidekaphobia is a morbid fear of the number 13. The number 13 has many reasons for people to believe it is unlucky. Many relate it back to the “Last Supper”, and there are examples of the bad fortune relating to the number, such as the arrest of the Knights Templar, and Apollo 13. Quite probably there are reasons to believe that almost any number is unlucky, but 13 seems to be the most popular of them, and properties in many roads and blocks of flats often don’t have a number 13.

But 13 has often been a lucky number for West Ham. West Ham have a good record in matches played on the thirteenth of the month, and in the month of August this is a particularly true fact. We have had a number of victories on this date in history, perhaps the most notable that I can recall being a 2-1 win over bitter rivals Tottenham in 1997. Goals from Berkovich and Hartson, two of our players who didn’t always see eye to eye, led to the victory in what was our second match of the 1997-98 season, both resulting in wins.

In fact we have never lost a competitive game played on August 13 in our entire history. So for any superstitious fans, we can thank the TV companies for the re-arrangement of our opening game this season at Old Trafford. Many believe that the odds are stacked against us today, but history shows that we are unbeatable on this date. So if you are looking for a reason to believe we will do well in today’s game this may be it. Let us hope that we keep up this amazing record.

Matchday 1: West Ham’s Typically Tricky Trip to Old Trafford

West Ham face what is usually a tricky task at the Theatre of Shattered Dreams.

Football is back and at last the weekend routine can return to normal subject to international breaks permitting.  In the last of the weekend’s Matchweek 1 fixtures the Hammers travel north to face Manchester United at Old Trafford.  After last season’s frustrations the slate is wiped clean as Slaven Bilic resumes his place in the hot seat with what looks to be a much improved and better balanced squad.  Time to get behind the manager and team for the highs and lows of what we can only hope will be an exciting, enjoyable and entertaining season.

West Ham do not hold many Premier League records but the highest number of opening day defeats (with ten) is one of them, while today’s opponents are joint leaders in the collection of opening day victories, with sixteen.  Throw in the fact that Jose Mourinho has never, as a manager, lost a season opener or lost a home league match on a Sunday then the omens do not look very promosing.  Still there are always a handful of surprises on the opening weekend and hopefully these were not all used up yesterday.

Head to Head

Of the last twelve meetings between West Ham and Manchester United that wonderful and memorable last game at the Boleyn is the only win that the Hammers have recorded.  The remainder have seen six defeats and five draws.

Old Trafford has never been the happiest hunting ground and despite some notable successes West Ham have only won fourteen times out of seventy visits (nine draws and forty seven defeats).  The most recent victory was on the final day of the Great Escape season (May 2007) and in the twelve encounters since that day the record is lost nine and drawn three.  Both the last two league meetings at Old Trafford have ended in draws including a scoreless one in December 2015 where the Hammers were clearly the better side.

“It’s not ideal playing against Manchester United at Old Trafford in the first game of the season, but on the other hand, it is brilliant and one of the greatest away games in the league.”

Slaven Bilic on the opening day fixture

You have to go back to the early days of the 1986/87 season for the last time that West Ham scored more than one goal at Old Trafford when two goals from Frank McAvennie and another from Alan Devonshire earned a 3-2 win to put West Ham top of the table.  If Javier Hernandez is unsure whether or not to celebrate any goals that he scores then history suggests that he will only need to agonise about it one time.

Team News

Once again West Ham are pace setters on the Physio Room injuries table with several key players not available for selection.  The probable absence of Manuel Lanzini and Michail Antonio are the biggest blows particularly with respect to any attacking aspirations that the Hammers may have.  Cheikhou Kouyate, Diafra Sakho and Andy Carroll are all missing and Aaron Creswell is a doubt.

My expectation is that Bilic will start with the back three of Winston Reid, Angelo Ogbonna and Jose Fonte supported by Pablo Zabaleta and one of Arthur Masuaku or Cresswell as full/ wing backs.  A probable midfield will see Pedro Obiang and Mark Noble at its heart with Marko Arnautovic and Andre Ayew wide and Herndandez a lonely figure up top.

“Everyone is available except the injuries that everybody knows, so the injuries that come from the previous season with surgeries.  Every one of the 22, plus the goalkeepers, that started the pre-season is ready for Premier League match one.”

Jose Mourinho on his fully fit squad

Manchester United have no new injury concerns and will parade a host of expensive new signings including bogey man Romelu Lukaku.

Man in the Middle

Today’s referee is Martin Atkinson from West Yorkshire.  We enjoyed Atkinson’s company four times last season: the home defeat to Watford; away wins to Crystal Palace (where he sent off Cresswell for two alleged yellow card offences) and Middlesbrough; and the away defeat to Arsenal (where he denied the Gunners a penalty or two to prevent an even more comprehensive scoreline).

Prediction

Both Lawro and Paul Merson see the game as a stonewall 2-0 home win for the hosts.  Mourinho’s teams are never flamboyant or packed with flair but rely on strength and relentless pressure to break teams down.  West Ham will likely take several buses to park on the edge of the area and the danger will be giving away too many free-kicks close to goal.  How well Zabaleta deals with the threat of Rashford could be a decisive individual contest.  The shortest odds this afternoon must be for a Lukaku goal and I fear that if one goes in it could lead to several more.  Difficult to see the Hammers fashioning too many quick breakaways but maybe Arnie and the Little Pea can conjure something up.

I would like to think that we can snatch a draw but deep down feel that we could lose by two or three.  It would be nice to get off to a flying start to the season but with three away games on the bounce it will be tough to get many points on the board before the international break.

 

 

Manchester United versus West Ham Preview

West Ham travel to Old Trafford for their 2017/18 season opener.

So there we have it. The pre-season fixtures have been done and dusted and we now get down to the nitty gritty of the Premier League. Of course because of the World Athletics Championships we face three fixtures away from home to begin with while they put the stadium back together again. In reality though, only one game had to be re-arranged, and that is our second match which is now a visit to the South Coast, instead of a home game against Southampton.

The opener though is just about as tough a game as we can expect, and nothing we’ve seen in pre-season leads me to expect that we can create a surprise here. The bookmakers don’t anticipate an upset, with the home side at odds of between 1/3 and 1/4, and a West Ham win quoted at between 10/1 and 12/1. You can get 4/1 on a drawn game.

Although friendly games very rarely give an indication of the real business to come, our final pre-season game in Iceland against Manchester City demonstrated very clearly the gulf in class between the very top teams, and those, like ourselves, who can really only hope to be contending for an eighth place finish. Our hosts have had an excellent pre-season including a win over City, and their only defeat was a single goal loss to Barcelona.

But you never know. Perhaps a visit to Old Trafford for the first game in the season is as good a time to visit there as any. Mourinho has added to what was already a strong squad, with their big signings of Lindelof, Matic, and our old friend Lukaku, who will be looking for his customary goal against West Ham, although to be fair we stopped him from scoring the last time he played against us for Everton in April.

The opening game can throw up some surprises, however; none more so than our visit to the Emirates the season before last when we shocked everybody with a 2-0 win. Last season we only just lost to Chelsea with a late goal from Costa, who shouldn’t really have still been on the field at the time, and they of course went on to win the league comfortably. But Manchester United began last season well with three straight wins, and every indication is that they might be even stronger contenders to finish at the top this time around.

I am writing this preview a few days in advance, as I will be watching the game in a bar in Camp de Mar in Majorca, and as such I am not sure of the likely make-up of our team, and how many injuries we will have before the season gets underway! I have a feeling that we will go into the game with a defensive 3-5-2 formation, with Fonte, Reid and Ogbonna in front of Hart in goal. Zabaleta and Masuaku could well be the wide (defensive) players in the middle (back?) five, and I would expect that Noble, Obiang and Lanzini will be the others. I would anticipate the two strikers to be Arnautavic and Hernandez. This would not necessarily be my choice of formation, but I am not paid to manage the team. If we do line up in this way then I can see us being on the back foot from the start.

Nevertheless I have dusted down my optimistic hat, and for no logical reason predict a 1-0 win, courtesy of a goal by Hernandez against the club that let him go.

West Ham Ten Years Ago Today

Memories of starting the season full of hope in August 2007 following the ‘great escape’.

Ten years ago on this day, Saturday 11 August 2007, we began our Premier League campaign with a home game against Manchester City. Just a few weeks earlier we had completed the “Great Escape” with a final day win at Old Trafford, and now under the continued management of Alan Curbishley we were embarking upon a new season with high hopes. Although Carlos Tevez had gone to Manchester United, we had made what were considered to be impressive signings in the transfer window, with new recruits Scott Parker, Freddie Llungberg, Julien Faubert, Kieron Dyer, and Craig Bellamy, who became our record signing at the time at £7.5 million. Dean Ashton was about to return after a year out with injury, and many believed a much better season would follow.

Tevez played less than 30 games for us and scored just seven goals but to many he was almost a legend. Of course, the controversy surrounding him joining us meant that we had allegedly broken third-party rules, which led to us paying an initial fine of £5.5 million pounds. Then, eighteen months later, just days before an independent FA arbitration panel was due to meet to consider a claim by Sheffield United that Tevez was instrumental in their relegation, we agreed to settle the claim by paying £30 million in instalments to the Blades. The “Tevez affair” had a profound impact upon the club for years.

Sven-Goran Eriksson, the ex-England manager, had taken over at Manchester City. Their owner, Thaksin Shinawatra, had bankrolled a big spending spree, and they had a host of new, mainly foreign, signings who made their debut that day, along with a keeper making his first appearance, Kasper Schmeichel. Two of their new signings scored the goals which beat us that day. In the first half, Elano ran through our half barely challenged, and then slid the ball across goal for Bianchi to slide in and score from about two feet. And just a couple of minutes from the end, Onuoha ran half the length of the field, evading a couple of half-hearted challenges, and laid the ball back for substitute Geovanni to hit a low drive beyond Robert Green from the edge of the area.

It was generally a rather flat performance for the opening game of the season, and although Zamora, Llungberg, Etherington, and finally Ashton had decent efforts and might have scored, City were good value for their win. After scoring the opening goal they sat back, and were relatively comfortable.

Our team that day was: Green, Spector, A. Ferdinand, Upson, McCartney, Boa Morte, Bowyer, Noble, Llungberg, Bellamy, Zamora.

Mullins and Etherington were introduced as substitutes at half time replacing Bowyer and Boa Morte, and then with just under half an hour remaining, Dean Ashton replaced McCartney.

The poor start to the season led to some changes for the next game which was won at Birmingham with a Mark Noble penalty. We went on to pick up ten points from the four games that followed the opening day defeat, and eventually finished the season in tenth place, which was one place below Manchester City and one above Tottenham.

How the make-up of the Premier League can change in ten years! Eleven of the clubs we faced that season will not be seen at top flight grounds this season. Villa, Blackburn, Portsmouth, Wigan, Bolton, Fulham, Reading, Birmingham, Derby, Middlesbrough, and Sunderland are all now in lower leagues. The only eight clubs that we faced in 2007-08 that we will meet this season, just ten years later are the teams who finished as the top seven last season, Chelsea, Tottenham, Manchester City, Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester United, and Everton, plus newly promoted Newcastle. It would be hard to bet against those same seven clubs occupying the top seven places again this season, albeit perhaps in a slightly different order.

Ten years on, and I believe  that Mark Noble and Kasper Schmeichel are the only two players who played that day who are still plying their trade in the Premier League.

Dreaming Dreams of a Top Eight Finish for West Ham

Today Under The Hammer’s Richard Bennett looks forward to the new Premier League season.

The 2017-18 season has arrived. Being a bit of a traditionalist, in the past the opening day was always one I looked forward to. All teams in the top flight would kick off at 3pm on the first Saturday, and by 5 o’clock you could see the first league table with all the teams having completed their first game. Of course, because of television that is not now the case, and this season the opening games begin on Friday evening, and continue through until Sunday, when our game at Old Trafford is the last one.

I had to smile when I saw the BBC league table where we were showing in 20th place (because of alphabetical order) before a ball has been kicked. By Saturday evening we will have moved off the bottom provided all the games on Friday and Saturday haven’t ended in draws! And when we kick off we will know what we have to do to be top of the table at the completion of matchday 1, or alternatively what we need to do to avoid being bottom of the pile.

This is written in jest of course, because the league table doesn’t really begin to take shape until at least half a dozen games have been played by each side. But by then, it is important not to be close to the bottom, as psychologically you feel that you are in a relegation scrap from the outset if you are. By the time we reach the third international break early in November, 11 games will have been played, five at home and six away, and by then we will have a good idea how our season will pan out.

By Christmas Day we will have reached the half-way point in the season (19 games played), but unusually we won’t have played all the other 19 teams at this point. The fixtures computer usually (in recent years) arranges it so that we have played them all, but by Christmas we will have played Newcastle home and away, but not played Bournemouth at all. We play them on Boxing Day.

But is it really that difficult to predict the eventual outcome in the Premier League by the end of the season? Last season my co-weblogger Geoff Hopkins and I made a forecast before the first games were played as to where each team would finish at the end. Our predictions were relatively accurate, as we predicted the top six (though not in the correct order), and not one of our finishing positions was more than six places out from the eventual outcome. This was no great achievement because it is not hard to know roughly what will happen before a ball has been kicked. Of course we were all taken by surprise with Leicester the season before, but that was a one-off which is extremely unlikely to happen again. Going back a few years it was much harder to forecast what would happen each season.

The Premier League is actually more open than almost all the other leagues in Europe, in that before the season starts there are likely to be anything up to six teams who may be in contention for the title. Compare that to other countries where the champions will come from perhaps two or three teams at the most.

Nevertheless despite the apparent predictability, Geoff and I will forecast the finishing positions of each team in the Premier League in the form of a friendly competition (see Geoff’s prediction here.). We score 0 points if we get the finishing position spot on, or one point for each position that we are out. Like the quiz Pointless the lowest score wins. Last year our scores were 54-57, so on average we were less than three positions out for each team, confirming the predictability of the league.

Last time I predicted a seventh place finish for West Ham to match the successful season that preceded it. We eventually ended up in 11th, although of course we were only one point behind the eighth placed team. Only six points separated 8th from 17th in the Premier League, so it can be close for the teams vying for the 8th spot, which if it follows last season, will be a competition in itself, because I believe the top seven spots will already be taken. Of course I hope I am wrong, and that our pre-season fixtures are not a true indication of how we will perform. Perhaps we can do a Leicester? If you believe that then the majority of bookmakers will offer you odds of 500-1.

My forecast for 2017-18 is as follows:

  1. Manchester City
  2. Manchester United
  3. Chelsea
  4. Arsenal
  5. Tottenham
  6. Liverpool
  7. Everton
  8. West Ham
  9. Leicester
  10. Newcastle
  11. Crystal Palace
  12. West Brom
  13. Bournemouth
  14. Southampton
  15. Swansea
  16. Stoke
  17. Burnley
  18. Brighton
  19. Huddersfield
  20. Watford